What Was the Legion of Decency?

“it has been highly pleasing to Us to learn of the fruits already gathered and of the progress which continues to be made by that prudent initiative launched more than two years ago as a holy crusade against the abuses of the motion pictures and entrusted in a special manner to the “Legion of Decency“.”
“An unceasing and universal vigilance must, on the contrary, convince the producers that the ‘Legion of Decency‘ has not been started as a crusade of short duration, soon to be neglected and forgotten, but that the Bishops of the United States are determined, at all times and at all costs, to safeguard the recreation of the people whatever form that recreation may take.” –
“Vigilanti Cura”
Encyclical of Pope Pius XI promulgated on June 29, 1936 that focuses on the Legion of Decency and the potential corrupting of souls by the Cinema, and the measures to take.

Thought movies were just fine to watch; no matter the content? First, let’s put a perspective on what “AVOIDING SIN” means in simple terms?

Catholic Dictionary




The moral responsibility of not exposing oneself unnecessarily to occasions of sin. Three principles are standard in Catholic moral teaching: 1. no one is obliged to avoid the remote occasions of sin. This is true because the danger of sin is slight and otherwise it would be impossible to live in the world; 2. everyone is obliged to avoid voluntary proximate occasions of sin, where “voluntary” means that it can easily be removed or avoided; 3. anyone in a necessary proximate occasion of sin is obliged to make the occasion remote. An occasion is necessary when the person’s state of life or profession or circumstances make it morally impossible to avoid exposure to certain enticements. What is a proximate danger to sinning can be rendered remote by such means as prayer, the sacraments, and custody of the senses, especially of the eyes.


 The Baltimore Catechism explains this in simpler terms:

Q. 770. What do you mean by a firm purpose of sinning no more?

A. By a firm purpose of sinning no more I mean a fixed resolve not only to avoid all mortal sin, but also its near occasions.

Q. 771. What do you mean by the near occasions of sin?

A. By the near occasions of sin I mean all the persons, places and things that may easily lead us into sin.

Q. 772. Why are we bound to avoid occasions of sin?

A. We are bound to avoid occasions of sin because Our Lord has said: “He who loves the danger will perish in it”; and as we are bound to avoid the loss of our souls, so we are bound to avoid the danger of their loss. The occasion is the cause of sin, and you cannot take away the evil without removing its cause.

Q. 773. Is a person who is determined to avoid the sin, but who is unwilling to give up its near occasion when it is possible to do so, rightly disposed for confession?

A. A person who is determined to avoid the sin, but who is unwilling to give up its near occasion when it is possible to do so, is not rightly disposed for confession, and he will not be absolved if he makes known to the priest the true state of his conscience.

Q. 774. How many kinds of occasions of sin are there?

A. There are four kinds of occasions of sin:
1. Near occasions, through which we always fall;
2. Remote occasions, through which we sometimes fall;
3. Voluntary occasions or those we can avoid; and
4. Involuntary occasions or those we cannot avoid. A person who lives in a near and voluntary occasion of sin need not expect forgiveness while he continues in that state.

Q. 775. What persons, places and things are usually occasions of sin?

1. The persons who are occasions of sin are all those in whose company we sin, whether they be bad of themselves or bad only while in our company, in which case we also become occasions of sin for them;
2. The places are usually liquor saloons, low theaters, indecent dances, entertainments, amusements, exhibitions, and all immoral resorts of any kind, whether we sin in them or not;
3. The things are all bad books, indecent pictures, songs, jokes and the like, even when they are tolerated by public opinion and found in public places.


The National Legion of Decency was formed in 1934 by the Catholic Bishops of the United States. The legion published rating lists designed to provide “a moral estimate of current entertainment feature motion pictures” and prepared under the direction of the New York Archdiocesan Council of the Legion of Decency with the cooperation of the Motion Picture Department of the International Federation of Catholic Alumnae. Films were rated as unobjectionable (Class A), objectionable (Class B), or condemned (Class C). Reasons for deeming a film objectionable include suggestive dialogue, lack of moral compensation, lustful kissing, and acceptance of divorce. The organization changed names twice—in the mid-1960s and in the early 1970s—and today is known as the U.S. Catholic Conference.

The National Legion of Decency collection spans the years 1941-1951 and encompasses 0.4 linear foot. The collection contains National Legion of Decency rating lists from December 1941 through July 1947, nine annual rating booklets from 1937 to 1946, and classification lists from September 1948 to July 1951. There is no other material on the organization. (The Los Angeles Archival Center of the Archdiocese contains some records relating to the legion and its activities from the mid-1930s through the mid-1960s. Material is available by appointment at the Archival Center, located at the San Fernando Mission in Mission Hills, California.)

Collected by the Library, 1941-1951.

Some films condemned by the League:

Greta Garbo’s last film, initially condemned for its “immoral and un-Christian attitude toward marriage and its obligations; impudently suggestive scenes, dialogue, and situations; [and] suggestive costumes”. Within a month Metro Goldwyn Mayer made changes sufficient for the Legion to revise its rating to B.

Unfortunately as some leaders in the Church became more and more lax concerning sin, film ratings concerning what is sinful and what isn’t is (to put it literally) MESSED UP. Considering the USCCB has a pretty good standing when it comes to Moral Issues, it is not GREAT. Therefore it is no longer prudent to completely trust their judgement when it comes to moral issues. Though they are STILL our superiors we must respect them and pray for them!

Moving on; modern day Catholic Film reviews are not as they used to be, as with pretty much everything else, for the past 50-60 years. (Lack of sense of sin, No cross/suffering necessary for salvation, Secular/modernist ideas, catechesis) So, finding a truly worthy review that will not lead you to watch a potentially sinful film is nearly impossible.

After sort of decrying the “Zeus stuff”, and typical movie-buff complaints, the writer at the USCCB decent films” ended his film review on the newest superhero movie; “Wonder Woman” with:

“In the end, what sells me on Wonder Woman, despite its issues, is Wonder Woman herself. Movies like Man of Steel and The Lone Ranger misunderstand and besmirch their iconic heroes. This movie understands and reveres its protagonist. That’s worth a lot, especially today.”

After writing the “parents guide” of sorts:


Much stylized action violence and some battlefield violence; polytheistic religious themes; sexually themed dialogue and humor, brief non-explicit male nudity and an off-screen nonmarital sexual encounter; limited profanity and some cursing.

.. They then rated the movie 3 out of 4 stars ARTISTIC/ENTERTAINMENT VALUE, +2 / -2 MORAL/SPIRITUAL VALUE, and Teens & up for AGE APPROPRIATENESS.

IMDB says this about just the Sex & Nudity warnings for parents :

Sex & Nudity

A man is seen emerging from a pool naked, a close frontal shot showing him bare-chested, and a long frontal shot with only his hands covering his privates. The heroine walks in and stares unabashedly and carries on a full conversation until he finally puts on a towel.

A man defines himself as being ‘above average’ in comparison to the general male gender in answer to the heroine’s question as she observes him

A prolonged conversation references sleeping with women outside of marriage, reproductive biology and ‘the pleasures of the flesh’. Gal asks Chris to “sleep” with him (non sexual – as in go to sleep – showing her naivity to slang terms and current culture) Chris awkwardly lays down next to her, both remain fully clothed.

Later in the movie Chris enters Gal’s room at night and they kiss. Scene cuts away showing the light left on. sex may or may not be implied (based on the conversation above)

Wonder Woman’s costume has a short skirt and does not cover up any of her leg.

A man makes a comment “I don’t know if I’m aroused or afraid” (After WW beats up another man) meant for humor.

Clearly the drawn lines on what IS and ISN’T sinful have been moved between now and when the Catholic Church first began judging films according to the sinfulness and danger to the souls watching them. Apparently it isn’t about souls or sin anymore, but becoming more “in-tune” with the world.


In moral matters man cannot make value judgments according to his personal whim:“In the depths of his conscience, man detects a law which he does not impose on himself, but which holds him to obedience. . . . For man has in his heart a law written by God. To obey it is the very dignity of man; according to it he will be judged.”

” The virtue of chastity, however, is in no way confined solely to avoiding the faults already listed. It is aimed at attaining higher and more positive goals. It is a virtue which concerns the whole personality, as regards both interior and outward behavior.”

When the Legion of Decency first began they had a strict set of rules and regulations that Hollywood had to adhere to in order to have their movies viewed by the public in good light. If there were suggestive scenes or dialogue that was frowned upon in the Catholic Church there would be speculation to the morality of the film and its makers. This was a time where Hollywood not only had to worry about its reception by moviegoers, but also its reception by the church. The idea of censorship appealed to the people who thought that the overall good was more important than individual liberties. The Catholic Church brought its authority to the moviegoing process in attempts to purify it for the greater good of the people who watch film. They harshly critiqued film and its morality. A priest from Buffalo, New York, went so far as to give a sermon regarding the film industry by spelling out the word “movies” with new meanings attached, “M – means moral menace, O – obscenity, V – vulgarity, I – immorality, E – exposure, S – sex.”

With the introduction of sound in film, there was worry within the church that this would bring more subjective material to audiences. “Sound unlocked a vast amount of dramatic material which for the first time could be effectively presented on the screen.” This code was meant to “amplify and add to those principles in the light of responsible opinion, so that all engaged in the making of sound pictures might have a commonly understandable and commonly acceptable guide in the maintenance of social and community values in pictures.” In 1930 there was a production code (also known as the Hays Code) written that all movie producers had to follow in order to avoid conflict.

The Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America created a section of general principles that mostly fell in the realm of moral standards, correct standards of life, and standards of human law not be violated whatsoever. Movies were stated as to be for entertainment use, and were frowned upon when extending beyond that definition. After the general principles were stated there were subsections of more specific rules that covered topics of murder, sex, vulgar language, profanity in dialogue, what the actors wore, how they danced, how they practiced religion in film, even the titles that were used for the film. Because the movies were seen as speaking to the morality of the viewer, the church believed that they needed to reflect that morality and not question it or lead them to sin.

The Legion distributed a list of ratings for films in order to provide “a moral estimate of current entertainment feature motion pictures”. The Legion was often more conservative in its views on films than the Motion Picture Association of America’s Production Code. Films were rated according to the following schema:

A: Morally unobjectionable
B: Morally objectionable in part
C: Condemned by the Legion of Decency
The A rating was subsequently divided:

A-I: Suitable for all audiences
A-II: Suitable for adults; later — after the introduction of A-III — suitable for adults and adolescents
A-III: Suitable for adults only
A-IV: For adults with reservations
In 1978, the B and C ratings were combined into a new O rating for “morally offensive” films.

The Legion of Decency blacklisted many films for morally offensive content. “The condemnation came in the form of a ‘C’ rating.” Practicing Catholics were directed to refrain from viewing such films. More explicitly, they were directed to “remain away from all motion pictures except those which do not offend decency and Christian morality.”Officially, the terminology for a Legion of Decency blacklisted film was a C-rating, which stood for “condemned”. The general breakdown of their rating system goes as follows: “A-I, general approval; A-II, approved for adults; B, unsatisfactory in part, neither recommended nor condemned; and C, condemned”.

 TODAY, this is what the “strict rules” have been watered down to (check out the language and terms they use) :

About the Decent Films ratings:
Movie ratings are reductive. A movie can’t be reduced to a number, nor can a response to a film. (A critic I know once griped in a tepid two-star review that “four yawns” would have been more appropriate, and that other films he had given a zero-star rating really deserve “four bombs.”)

A positive rating can’t tell you if a movie is entertaining, thought-provoking, funny, inspiring, exciting, challenging, surprising, insightful, witty or poetic. A negative rating can’t tell you whether it’s boring, pointless, crude, clumsy, confusing, obvious, exploitative, ugly, etc. That’s what language is for.

Ideally, a rating offers an index of the critic’s opinion as discussed and explained in the review. For readers familiar with a critic’s work, a B or three-star rating puts the film in a certain context relative to other B or three-star films.

Every movie review at Decent Films includes a letter grade prominently displayed near the movie title. (Essays don’t have letter grades.) This letter grade is a recommendability rating, and can be understood this way:

A = highly recommended
B = recommended
C = your call
D = not recommended
F = strongly non-recommended
Any of these ratings (except F) can be nuanced with pluses or minuses: C+ isn’t quite a recommendation, but it’s leaning positive; A- is highly recommended, but with qualifications or caveats.

The “grade” metaphor isn’t meant to suggest an objective judgment on a film’s achievement or quality; it’s just an index of whether or not I recommend the film, and how strongly.

Of course, that raises the question: What makes a film recommendable or nonrecommendable? I offer two supplemental ratings meant to clarify and amplify on the recommendability rating, to break down why a film is or isn’t recommendable along two basic axes:

Artistic/entertainment value
Moral/spiritual value
Artistic–entertainment value essentially goes to how well made a film is, how well it works or achieves its effect. The stars can be read this way:

= Excellent
= Good
= Fair
= Poor
= Bomb (obviously)
Here, too, there are half stars between the full star ratings.

How well a film works, of course, depends in part on what sort of film it is, what it’s trying to accomplish. The merits of a top-notch character drama are different from those of a top-notch action film or thriller. Likewise, the defects of a lousy romantic comedy are different from those of a lousy biography or documentary. Any film can only be evaluated by the standards appropriate to the sort of film it is.

As essential as artistic-entertainment value is, how worthwhile a film is also depends on moral and spiritual factors. Here I write specifically as a Catholic Christian, though my intention is to write in a way that is accessible and worthwhile for interested readers of other faiths, or of none.

Moral–spiritual value can be positive or negative — or both. My moral–spiritual scale goes from +4 to -4; the sense of it is something like this:

+4 = deeply inspiring or edifying
+2 = positive or wholesome
0 = basically harmless
-2 = problematic or negative
-4 = deeply objectionable or offensive
The rating allows for the inclusion of both positive and negative moral-spiritual factors, e.g., +2 / -1. Rather than reduce every film to a single moral character, this system is meant to acknowledge that many films are mixtures of both praiseworthy and problematic elements.

Finally, there is a rating for age appropriateness:

Kids & up
Teens & up
Any of these ratings may be modified by an asterisk (*), indicating “discernment required.” Profoundly objectionable films (-4) are not assigned an age rating.

At the end of the day, what matters is not the numbers, but the thinking behind them — and for that matter above and beyond them.”

That last line though… ha!

The USCCB Office for Film & Broadcasting Film Classifications repeats more thoroughly their views concerning the media they “sift through” : “Instead of merely keeping tabs on the levels of sex, violence, and coarse language in a film, the USCCB Office of Film and Broadcasting ‘evaluates films for artistic merit and moral suitability’ “

Whatever the reason for this watering down is, Catholic’s are in serious trouble if they continue to let their morals more and more loose. Because when your soul is concerned, it won’t matter whether or not the film “had some good points”.

We are all called to be pure in heart, mind, and body, and one good way to be able to remain pure and an good Child of God is to avoid all sinful movies/tv shows. How is it that all of a sudden, issues that were so sinful that Catholic’s were warned to stay away for fear of their souls… are now told to either “think about it” / “your call”. Or just watch it anyway?

 Pope Pius XI clearly exhorts the Clergy to take seriously the film industry and its potential to ruin souls, and to NOT BE WEARY when fighting such evil!

“It is equally the duty of the Bishops of the entire Catholic world to unite in vigilance over this universal and potent form of entertainment and instruction, to the end that they may be able to place a ban on bad motion pictures because they are an offence to the moral and religious sentiments and because they are in opposition to the Christian spirit and to its ethical principles. There must be no weariness in combating whatever contributes to the lessening of the people’s sense of decency and of honour.” 

“Vigilanti Cura” Encyclical promulgated on June 29, 1936.

This is an obligation which binds not only the Bishops but also the faithful and all decent men who are solicitous for the decorum amd moral health of the family, of the nation, and of human society in general.

A really great way to be able to sift through the masses of immoral filth are Parents Guide websites. Although they may have a less strict moral sense, they usually warn the viewer of any sexuality/and so on that the film may contain. Also, pray the rosary, go to mass frequently, read good Catholic books.

See also: “8 Smart Tools To Avoid Immorality on the Media”

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